HOW do you clean up the world’s most polluted sea? The answer, according to “pioneering” new science from a Scottish university, is to look to space.

Stirling University researchers believe they hold the key to making the Black Sea blue again.

The inland sea – named Pontus Axeinus, or “Inhospitable Sea” – by the ancient Greeks, is reputedly where Jason and the Argonauts set out to find the golden fleece.

Today the inshore waters, shared by six nations from Turkey to Russia and Bulgaria to Georgia, are the subject of major concern over pollution levels so high that it’s considered the world’s most contaminated sea. It holds double the level of marine litter found in the Mediterranean and suffers from extensive eutrophication – high levels of phosphorus, nitrogen, and other plant nutrients. The poor water quality has had a serious impact on fish stocks and species diversity is under severe threat.

Some experts believe the Black Sea may become the first major sea devoid of life.

Professor Andrew Tyler, of the University of Stirling’s Faculty of Natural Sciences, says the problem is so acute that new thinking is needed to tackle it – and he believes the “pioneering” work by his team holds the answer. The initiative will use satellite technology fed by sensors on the ground to measure microplastics, nutrient levels and more. That data, it is hoped, holds the key to large-scale environmental progress – and the process could be rolled out in other parts of the world for wider benefits.

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Microplastics – now recognised as a global eco-threat – in the water are colonised by bacteria which, in large enough quantities, calm the microripples normally present on the surface.

Thanks to sensitive technology and new algorithms from the Stirling team, that can be measured and monitored via satellites, as can water colour to detect large blooms of green algae that indicate a harmful imbalance of nutrient levels.

Stirling is the only UK university involved in the EU-funded DOORS (Developing Optimal and Open Research Support for the Black Sea) study, which Tyler co-leads.

Institutes in France, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and more are also lending their expertise while Professor Adrian Stanica, director general of GeoEcoMar in Romania and an honorary professor at the University of Stirling, is coordinating the project, which he says could be “the game changer that we have been waiting for”.

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The polluted Black Sea

Tyler said: “The pressures that we have been putting on our oceans are fundamental. There’s been a lot of high profile cases around plastics and the impact on marine ecosystems is dramatic. Returning our oceans to a better state is essential to the health of this planet. I can’t overstate that.”

It’s hoped that the team can present its work to ministers at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow later this year.

On the microplastics monitoring, Tyler says the method could be used across territories, explaining: “A lot of people are looking at it but this is an area that we are pioneering. You can’t measure that directly easily but you can measure is the effect that microplastic-concentrated bacteria have. The bacteria are surfactants which calm the surface of the water. The microripples the wind produces are fanned out.”

He went on: “This has important opportunities for companies in Scotland to think about exploiting technologies that help clean up the marine environment. There’s real opportunity for both the engineering side and technology side.”

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Rubbish piles at the seaside

Tyler has been working on Black Sea projects for years and says some areas like the “spectacular” Danube delta remain “relatively unspoilt”.

Though larger in scale than other places, the problems there “aren’t unique”, he says: “It’s one we are facing in all river-sea systems. Estuaries and deltas are really vulnerable to climate change, which could have real impacts on infrastructure in those very populous areas. We are as a species really draw to water.”

While that draw has led to unsustainable practices, it’s hoped DOORS will lead to better marine management and even help develop new cleaner industry.

Stanica said: “DOORS will bring the needed knowledge to support the Black Sea recovery – whilst bringing the opportunities of the Industry 4.0 Revolution closer to the people.”